“Ae Fond Farewell”: Looking back at reading in 2017

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
                                           Robert Burns

I cannot think of a year to which I am more ready to say “fareweel.” As I wrote to a friend recently, it has been a bizarre and exhausting twelve months. And too often, it seemed that the constant barrage of news and reactions took time away from the pleasure of reading–so much of my reading was taking the form of newspapers and blogs, tweets and news crawls.

And yet, it ended up being a relatively good year. Not counting the books I need to read for work–things like Shakespeare, Huxley,  Atwood, and Ellison–it has been productive.

In breaking down my “for pleasure” reading, I completed

22 works of fiction
15 works of nonfiction
7 collections of poetry.

I have read 22 male authors and 22 female authors. And more than half of what I read was by non-American writers.

It was a good year for writing. Among the fiction, there were many, many memorable works: from veterans like Ali Smith and Michael Chabon to new discoveries like the Irish writers Catriona Lally (Eggshells) and Jess Kidd (Himself); new discoveries in poetry included Dylan Krieger (Giving Godhead) and Rebecca Lindenberg (Love, An Index); and the range of subjects in non-fiction is inexhaustible and enlightening.

FICTION

If I had to choose three (which I don’t, but … )

Laurent Binet’s The 7th Function of Language is a fun “murder mystery” involving the philosophical stars of the late 20th  century. (Many of whom are still living.) The 7th function of languageactual death of Roland Barthes, who was killed by a laundry van, is determined to be NOT AN ACCIDENT and the suspects include everyone from Mitterrand to Foucault, from Umberto Eco to Noam Chomsky. It is a bold and nervy novel that merges the modern detective story with outrageous flights into semiotics.

George Saunders’ experimental novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, features over a hundred characters, all but one of them who are dead. Lincoln’s son has died and the residents of the cemetery where he rests try to ease his transition to the other lincolnside and compete with each other for the boy’s favor. Meanwhile, the grieving president continues to visit. It is an extraordinary, emotional and satisfying read.

And finally, The Nix by Nathan Hill. I don’t remember how I found this novel, but I am glad I did. Hill is like a Zelig in his uncanny ability to capture the reality of certain, disparate scenes: the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention; patrol duty during the second Iraq War; teaching college in the 2010s; the brain functions of an addicted gamer.  These set pieces are mesmerizing and propel the story to its complicated and enlightening ending. Dealing with self-realization, maternal bonds, political the nixmanipulation, war, the classical musical world, gaming, and academic integrity, Hill seems to have bitten off far too much. But he brings it all together to serve up one extraordinary and satisfying novel.

 

Non-Fiction

My readings in non-fiction were not purposeful, but often connected in a string of related ideas. Early in the year I read the wonderful, The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs by Elaine Scillonian. What started out as a food piece for the New York only streetTimes ended up to be much, much more–a wonderful peek into a Parisian street and neighborhood that has resisted progress and gentrification and tourism, and which continues in much of its uniqueness and tradition.
Scillonian’s book then led me to Lauren Elkin’s FLÂNEUSE: Women Walk the City. It is an entertaining and erudite discussion of women flaneuse–particularly writers and artists and herself– walking in world cities, though with a concentration in Paris. I am grateful for its  introducing me to the marvelous artist Sophia Calle, whose one amusing art work involved walking around Venice while following a strange man. (It also introduced me to Georges Sand, of whom I knew  very little. Two of her enormous novels sit next to my bed, waiting for 2018.)

It is only natural to go from the  “entertaining and erudite” musings of The Flaneuse to perhaps America’s finest intellect, a-field-guide-to-getting-lost-paperback-cover-9781786890511.1200x1200nRebecca Solnit, whose “invisible cities” books have given me much enjoyment in the past. This year I turned to her Field Guide to Getting Lost, a wonderful meditation on the usefulness and growth achieved in being lost somewhere. Like all of Solnit’s work, the main thesis is simply a jumping off point for all sorts of insights and reflections.

 

Undoubtedly, it’s been a tough year around the world. But at least there was a raft of books–too many to list here–to help me navigate the rough seas.  I am looking forward to 2018.

Happy New Year to all!

 

 

Tuesday Book Review: Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

I read Wonder Boys last week.  I had read it previously, at least twenty years ago, and, boy, had I misremembered it.  As a younger man, I found inspiration in the “wunderkind” writing student and was fascinated by the famous writing teacher who is famously blocked with his novel (also called Wonderboys) that is going on past 2600 pages long.  This time around I did not have the same reactions.

Part of the problem is also that I could not get the film adaptation out of my head– a film I had seen in the long interim between readings.  In the film, the famous writing teacher is played by Michael Douglas, his cynical, jaded literary agent by Robert Downey, Jr., and the fabulous writing student by Tobey Maguire.  And while I remember enjoying the movie greatly–and understand why marquee actors are used–I think  it was terribly miscast.

Grady Tripp is the dissolute writing teacher.  He smokes way too much dope, he is cavalier in his relationships, and he is always looking out to score. In the novel, he is over-large, a big hulking bear of a man.  In one scene, when he is spiraling into what might be a catastrophic relationship with a young student who rents a room in his basement, he notices his reflection in the mirror. He sees a middle-aged, bearish man slumped down over this young college girl as they slow dance together. It is a moment of self-awareness–aided by a large quantity of pills, dope, and alcohol enhanced by pounding adrenelain after a slapstick night of antics. The man he sees in the mirror no way is the stylish professor played by Michael Douglas.

The young writing student is a-social and painfully awkward which Tobey Maguire captures but he is not nearly dark enough. In the novel, James Leer is very dark, in a long overcoat of indeterminate material and age.  And Robert Downey Jr. did not match my vision either. I know that most people quibble with the casting of books they’ve read when they are made into movies.  And this is my quibble: the cast is too handsome.

But enough about the movie…

The novel starts out on a rollicking tear. On the night that the novel begins Grady Tripp finds a note from his wife saying she has left him, he picks up his agent and the transvestite he met on the plane, his mistress–Chancellor of the school and wife of his Department Chairman–tells him she is pregnant, he gets bit in the leg by a dog, and he is traveling around with a tuba, a dead dog, the coat Marilyn Monroe wore at her wedding to Joe DiMaggio and a student who may or may not be suicidal…or truthful.  It reminded me of John Irving at his best.

An academic farce, there are set scenes of college gatherings and festival lectures. There are Tripp’s musings on the requirements of good writing, his praise for James Leer’s young but promising work, and insights into a truly blocked artist–one who comes to no longer believe in the work he is doing.

The female characters, his wife, his mistress, the student living in his house, however, are very shallow–cardboard figures created for Tripp to act or react against.

Michael Chabon

That the novel famously echoes Chabon’s early writing life makes reading it this much later in his career offer its own rewards.  Like James Lear, the young student, Chabon received a book contract for The Mysteries of Pittsburgh when his writing professor–unknown to Chabon–passed the manuscript on to his own literary agent.  And like Grady Tripp, Chabon worked years on a follow-up novel–a novel that grew enormously large before he himself destroyed it.

Since The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonderboys, Chabon has continued to win great praise and loyal readership.  His novel, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitizer Prize for fiction in 2000 and his 2007 novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union won the Hugo, Nebula, Sidewise and Ignotus awards. (An aside–I was in Quebec city one week and needed something to read. There was primarily only French book stores. In one that I stepped into there was a small rack with about a dozen books written in English. It was there that I bought the Yiddish Policemen’s Union.)

And while his first novel–The Mysteries of Pittsburgh–and the novels following Wonderboys deal directly with Jewishness and Judaism, it is a very minor theme in Wonderboys.  There are touches of it when Tripp and James go visit his Korean ex-wife for Passover Seder and bumps against it when James’ own history is revealed, but it is not forefront in the novel.

Instead this is very much a novel about writing–or not writing as is Tripp’s case.  It is academic because it takes place on a university campus and deals with chancellors and professors and students and chairmen, but there is no scenes within a classroom. It tries to be a novel about love and contentment–but Tripp’s long road there, it is his third wife that leaves him and his tentative gestures towards his pregnant mistress are filled with doubt and fear.

All in all, though, Wonderboys is a wonderful read.  The beginning is peerless–quick moving, deft character sketches, and hilarious plotting. If the second-half seems to suffer from a bit of a hangover, it is because nothing could keep up with the original momentum. The novel must switch rhythms to mirror Grady Tripp’s more thoughtful musings, fears, and discoveries.

Do read Wonderboys or, if you want, rent the film.  Both are very enjoyable.  Just don’t do both too close together. And when you finish with those give Chabon’s other titles a try. Any of them are well worth the time spent.

Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and the weekly coincidences

I have been going through a noticeable streak of coincidences lately. In a particular ten days to two weeks, I will repeatedly see, hear, read about something that I hadn’t noticed or thought of in a long time. It might be a friend who has moved away…a movie I hadn’t seen in decades…a book that I had forgotten that suddenly is being cited everywhere.

Anyway, this week it has been Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.  I knew who Keaton was, had always preferred Chaplin, but respected his enormous role in the history of movies. I knew little about Lloyd except for his famous clock scene.

And now Keaton seems to be everywhere. I wonder if, like so many things in modern culture, it is simply Keaton’s turn to be the object contemporary interest. (Contemporary interest has a very short life and while it might be Keaton in 2012, the focus could as easily turn to Jacques Tati for 2013, or Mack Sennett by July.) Who knows when it will be Lloyd’s turn?

Film connoisseurs have long praised Keaton.  Orson Welles called his The General “the greatest comedy ever made…and perhaps the greatest film every made.” And Roger Ebert called Keaton “arguably the greatest actor-director in the history of movies.”  Lloyd’s reputation is not as high-flying.  Part of this came from Lloyd’s demanding such a prohibitive price for television broadcast of his films–and so his work is generally less known than either Chaplin or Keaton.

One of his most famous scenes is this:

Indeed this  scene is very obviously alluded to in the 2011 film  Hugo, based on the Brian Selznik book The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

In the story, the young boy Hugo lives in the clock tower of a Parisian train station in the 1930s. During the course of the film, he sneaks his new friend Isabelle into a movie house. She has never seen a motion picture before and the film they watch is Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! with its famous “hanging from the clock” scene.

Later on, young Hugo himself must escape some danger by hanging from the clock hands and moving along to safety.  In a story that is basically about the birth of cinema, the nod to Lloyd’s  iconic clock scene is both appropriate and deserved.

A photo of Lloyd hanging from the clock is in the book. And the film clip is shown in the movie.

And this is where the coincidences really start!

On Friday,  I am in a coffee shop, minding my business and reading the novel The Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon.  Two guys in the table next to me are having a friendly argument and the argument is about Harold Lloyd’s hanging from the sprung clock. The one guy is insisting that the actor is Buster Keaton; the other insists it is Harold Lloyd.  I am especially proud of myself for not inserting myself  into the discussion–as is often my wont.

Yet it goes further. About an hour later, I am still reading and I come to a passage in the novel where the narrator introduces one of his writing students to his wife who has left him the day before and who he–and the student–have followed to her parents’ house, in a slap-stick sort of way that would have made these early film directors proud.

“This is James Leer. From workshop.”…
“The movie man,” she said. “I’ve heard about you.”
“I’ve heard about you, too,” said James.
I thought for a moment that she might ask him about Buster Keaton, one of her idols. but she didn’t.

Did I just read that right? “I thought…she might ask him about Buster Keaton“? Okay, simple coincidence. An hour after overhearing the Lloyd/Keaton conversation, but a simple coincidence.

So it is Tuesday, and exams are over, and I am getting out of work around 11:15. I check to see what is playing, because I particularly love going to the movies when rest of the world is at work.  There is a film called The Fairy (le fee) with an enchanting poster that I know nothing about. I go online to read what it is about.  Here’s what they say to begin with:

The Belgian-based trio of Dominque Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy (The Iceberg) write, direct and perform absurdist comedies in the tradition of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. The Fairy is a candy-colored romp set in Le Havre—a non-stop string of hilarious sight gags and madcap chases. 

More Keaton.  It’s as if he’s following me…or I unconsciously am following him. Even the movie poster alludes to its Keatonesque qualities.

So I am off to see The Fairy this afternoon. Off to see slapstick and physical humor from this Belgian trio, but I hope that it rises above that.  The slapstick of Keaton and Lloyd and Chaplin, as well, was always more than pratfalls. It always said something true about the human heart. Something important about all of us.